The Vanderbilt Commodores are on a late-season roll. They broke another jinx Wednesday by defeating Ole Miss 77-65 in Oxford, Miss., and ended an eight-game losing streak at that location. They improved to 7-6 in the conference, and their NCAA tournament chances are now bright, much better than just a few days ago when the record was just 4-6. Matt Freije broke the all-time team scoring record, passing the old record held by Phil Cox in the first half. And finally, Vandy had four players score in double digits against the Rebels: Matt Freije (20), Mario Moore (17), David Przybyszewski (16) and Russell Lakey (10).
Mississippi State presents a tough challenge. They are 22-2, 11-2 in conference play, and ranked No. 7 in both national polls. With their win on Wednesday over LSU, Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs have already clinched the SEC Western Division championship outright.
The Bulldogs' only losses in SEC play are to Kentucky (67-66) and Alabama (77-73), both at home. On the road, they have defeated Mississippi 61-54, LSU 64-54, Florida 79-68, Auburn 73-68, South Carolina 79-75, and Arkansas 77-70. In Starkville, they have beaten Arkansas 80-62, Georgia 71-58, Tennessee 82-60, Mississippi 80-56, and most recently LSU 84-58. Their best non-conference victories were over UAB (86-84) and Xavier (82-70). They are certain to receive an NCAA tournament bid.
The Bulldogs' team statistics are the most impressive of any team in the conference. They are: first in scoring margin, rebound margin, and steals; second in points scored per game and field goal shooting percentage; and third in blocked shots. Their weakest categories are free throw percentage and assist/turnover ratio (ninth in each), and 3-point shooting (eighth, with about six treys made per game).
Mississippi State is blessed with a stable and impressive starting five. 6-9 junior Lawrence Roberts, who transferred in from Baylor after the scandal there, is a legitimate candidate for first-team all-conference and SEC Player of the Year honors. He scores 17.3 ppg and averages 9.8 rebounds. He is a strong and active 230-pounder whose only weak point, free throw shooting (62.4%), could be critical in a close game-- he averages 7.4 tries from the line per game.
Another transfer who starts is 6-4 junior Shane Power, who averaged in double digits at Iowa State in his sophomore year. Power was slowed by injuries early in the season, but moved into the starting lineup when he recovered. He is scoring 9.0 ppg. He is the Bulldogs' best outside shooter, hitting 41% of his threes, makes 77% of his free throws, and grabs 4.2 rebounds per game.
Another all-conference candidate is point guard Timmy Bowers, a 6-2 senior (right, AP photo by Rogelio Solis). He fires in 15.2 ppg and hauls in 3.9 rebounds. In previous years he was the shooting guard, and his assist/turnover ratio is not the best (4.5/3.3). He makes 35.6% of his 3-pointers, drives well to the basket, and may be a tough matchup for Vanderbilt.
The other two starters were reserves last year who logged a log of minutes. Slender 6-4 junior Winsome Frazier, who plays on the wing opposite Power, is scoring 12.8 ppg and hits a third of his 3's. Like Bowers he can get to the basket on his own moves and knocks down 77% of his 3's. 6-8 senior Branden Vincent, a 235-pounder, scores less than the other starters (6.9 ppg), but helps greatly on the boards (7.3 rebounds per game).
7-0 junior Marcus Campbell started at center until Power moved up. He scores 6.7 ppg and averages 4.1 rebounds. Although not a particularly good shot-blocker, his height could be used to counter that of David Przybyszewski. 5-11 freshman Gary Ervin plays 19 minutes per game, averages 5.1 ppg, and allows Bowers to frequently move over to his more natural shooting guard position.
This could be the most entertaining home game of the season. Despite the recent success of the Commodores, they face possibly their stiffest challenge from Mississippi State, a likely two-seed in the NCAA. Vanderbilt is selected to win here by a 3-6 point margin, mainly on the basis of their momentum and, of course, the home court advantage. The Commodores are 14-1 at Memorial Gym so far this season, with the only loss coming by two points to South Carolina.